Could WIC Promote Healthy Corner Stores?

Fellow blogger Greg Bloom at Bread for the City has asked whether the WIC program could be leveraged with programs like DC Hunger Solution’s Healthy Corner Store initiative to boost demand for more healthful foods.

An intriguing question. So let me try to answer.

Of course, the first step would be to ensure that corner stores in low-income neighborhoods are authorized to accept WIC coupons. Those DC Hunger Solutions interviewed are not. If they were, then the nutrition information and education WIC recipients are supposed to receive could be expanded to specifically address opportunities for healthful choices at corner stores.

Focusing on the WIC authorization issue would make a lot of sense. As I recently wrote, the federal WIC food package has been significantly expanded. The District is in the process of expanding its approved foods list accordingly.

So by the time corner stores got authorized, they would be able to accept WIC coupons for a wide variety of foods. And, of course, WIC recipients would have more convenient places to use their coupons. However, current vendor requirements pose significant barriers for a typical corner store. This is something the D.C. Health Department should look into.

Greg also asks about initiatives to support purchases at farmers’ markets, citing the Wholesome Wave Foundation’s double value coupon initiative.

At least one local government has adopted an approach similar to the programs Wholesome Wave is funding. New York City issues “health bucks” coupons, worth $2 each, to residents in low-income communities with high obesity rates. These are redeemable for fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers’ markets.

Food stamp recipients get an additional “health bucks” coupon for every $5 in food stamps they spend at a farmers’ market. I don’t see why a similar initiative couldn’t include purchases with WIC coupons as well as food stamps. Something D.C. could consider.

That said, I doubt whether such an initiative could have a major impact on the diets of many low-income D.C. residents. As with full-service grocery stores, the problem is location. There are only two farmers’ markets east of the Anacostia River, where the greatest concentrations of low-income people live. But here too building demand might increase supply.

The District has taken a first step by becoming part of the federal WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. Under this program, D.C. WIC participants can get five $5 checks for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases at authorized farmers’ markets. Hardly enough for a year-round healthful diet. But, hey, every bit helps.


3 Responses to Could WIC Promote Healthy Corner Stores?

  1. Joni says:

    I would be interested in hearing how far the corner stores are from being able to carry a wide enough variety of foods to accept the WIC checks.

    Councilmember Tommy Wells included half a million of stimulus money in the Committee on Human services budget mark-up for a “Healthy Foods Initiative.” It says it will “Supplement Food Stamps benefits for families receiving TANF benefits for use at area Farmer’s Markets to purchase locally grown and fresh produce.” Pretty vague, but he has in mind something similar to the “healthy bucks” coupons you mention. The committee passed it unanimously. It will be interested to see how successful it is. Maybe we can take this kind of thing to scale for all low-income DC residents in the future?

  2. kathrynbaer says:

    Thanks so much for the news about the proposed “Healthy Foods Initiative.” Yes, it does sound rather like New York City’s “health bucks,” doesn’t it? Note that NYC provides “health bucks” for all residents in three large low-income communities. Certainly suggests that Councilmember Wells’s concept could be scaled.

    NYC could also be a model for implementation in a couple of ways. One is the city’s partnership with local community groups for distribution of the coupons. Another is the fact that the city seems to have an overall strategy. For example, the communities where “health bucks” are distributed are also the focus of a healthy corner stores program. And look at all that good healthy eating education on the Department of Health’s website!

    So far as WIC and District corner stores are concerned, there are two separate questions. One is to what extent the corner stores could offer a sufficient variety of foods on the approved list now. The other is what vendors will be required to stock when D.C. issues its expanded approved list. As you know, the federal WIC food basket has been vastly expanded. If D.C. follows suit, then any approval criterion that requires a vendor to stock all or most of the foods on the list would be highly problematic. Under federal regulations, the District’s new list must be issued by this fall. So the regulations question is pressing.

  3. […] Could WIC Promote Healthy Corner Stores?: Over at the Poverty and Policy blog, there’s been talk about the Healthy Corner Store Program, one of the many exciting programs working to connect low-income people with nutritious, sustainable food.  (Thanks to DCCK’s amazing nutrition educator Dahlia Rockowitz for tipping us off.) […]

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